While the US ponder who will be appointed as the cyber czar of the Obama administration, a number of US government websites were reportedly hacked over the July 4 holidays.

The US Treasury Department, Secret Service, Federal Trade Commission and Transportation Department sites were all shut down for as much as two days after unknown parties carried out denial-of-service (DoS) attacks.

The Homeland Security Department’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team later issued a notice to federal departments and other partner organizations about the problems and the appropriate steps to take to help mitigate against such attacks.

Thousands of miles away, a number of South Korean government agency sites, banks and Internet sites were hit as well. A spokesperson for the Korea Information Security Agency said that the US and Korean incidents appeared to be linked.

Cyber attacks on government websites are growing in frequency with perpetrators becoming bold with each successful attack. According to Professor Fang Binxing, a cyber security scientist and former director of the national computer network emergency response team in China between 2002 and 2006, as many as 60,000 hacks targeting the government are attempted each year.

In case you think only government and very large organizations are targets, you could never be more wrong.

Richard Moss, eBorders Director, believes no computer is safe, whether public or private. “There are well understood tactics and techniques for protecting systems which should be deployed, regularly tested and updated but lets face it – what more evidence is needed that any system, anywhere in the world, is vulnerable? if a system is connected to something else then its vulnerable, end of story! (and if a system’s not connected its value to an organization diminishes rapidly).”

“Furthermore, how vulnerable a system is can be pretty dynamic, public or private. witness the cyber attacks in Estonia – the simple act of moving a stone statue brought a virtual barrage of cyber attacks crippling both public and private systems – the systems themselves hadn’t changed overnight but the motivation (the threat) of attack had. So public and private organizations need to perform regular and holistic risk assessments (see my Blog on Cyber terrorism for a list of motivations for attacks),” said Ross.

While no system will ever be 100% foolproof from cyber attacks, “organizations can developed the necessary risk profiles, plan defenses appropriately, make the correct investments and establish and enforce the security policy appropriate for the business you are in, the threats you face and the risk appetite your investors want you to hold. Best Practice is to invest in real time security monitoring alerting you in real-time to threats as they occur,” advices Ross.

But real mitigation of such risks can only occur when true international government co-operation between nation states is achieved. “This would help establish effective and homogeneous computer crimes laws backed by consistent and fair punishments, establishes a framework for effective law-enforcement cooperation (similar to Interpol in the real world fight against crime) and has effective measures to “lock-out” nations that fail to cooperate. But we are years away from this nirvana … so, its still a case of individuals and organizations out running that Tiger!,” quips Ross.

Ross can be melodramatic at times – maybe because he is British. But then aain we are coming to a full week since the July 4 attacks on US government websites and they are still under attack.

So word of caution, if you think you need to be connected to the Internet, err on the side of caution. You never know who is watching you.

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